Food

Pumpkin Spice Was So Over. It Took the Pandemic to Bring It Back.

Starbucks released their PSL early this year—just in time.

Comfort me with PSLs. Photograph courtesy of iStock.

Pumpkin spice: Never has a coffee flavoring inspired so much divisiveness or so much marketing mania. Google basically anything—dog treats, Listerine strips, RAMEN—and a PSL-inspired take will pop up.

You probably know all this, because pumpkin spice has been dissected and written about and debated for the 17 years since Starbucks poured its first cup. It has settled, as some trends do, beyond the realm of being loved or hated—or being cared about at all. Whether you like it or not says nothing anymore about your taste or your identity. Unlike a mocha frap, it does not mean that you are basic. Or that you probably have candles in scents like “boulangerie” at home. Or that you go to an orchard for the ‘gram rather than the apples. Pumpkin spice’s ubiquity has rendered it as potent a topic as, well, vanilla. 

But, just watch: I think it’s coming back in a big way.   

A few nights ago, my husband announced that he was done with dirty martinis. “But that’s our drink!” I said. We’d been consuming an embarrassing number of them each week. I think of it with affection as the one cocktail that appeals to our disparate tastes.    

He went back to stirring his negroni. “It brings back too many memories,” he said.  

He was talking about those early days of the pandemic. Back when we naively thought this thing was gonna last two weeks, a month, tops. Back when we’d calm our nerves with homey projects like two-day cinnamon roll recipes and “lasagna and martini night!”  (Now its “grilled chicken again?” Womp). Anyway, I get where he was coming from. There are certain things, like Idina Menzel wailing “Into the Unknown,” that trigger that same clench for me.

“Live in the moment,” is something that people say a whole lot. But as we trudge through month six of the pandemic, with no end in sight and a country in chaos, I often want out of the moment. What was once a source of stress—messy mornings getting a toddler out the door, podcasts that always got cut off on the commutes home—now fills me with the same type of longing I have for my mom’s pancakes.

I like working from home well enough, but I get lost in reminiscing about the structure and stability of a day at the office (I never gave it enough credit!). I miss the giant window and stale gummy bears I shared with my colleague-turned-friend. I miss the feeling of walking outside after a desk-bound day, and getting a jolt of happy from a surprise 70 degrees.

But mostly, I miss the micro-luxuries I’d allow myself once in awhile. A $13 Cobb from Chop’t (hold the gross dry chicken). Or the spontaneous chocolate chip cookie, always warm, from Pret. Or the little plastic jugs of gazpacho from José Andrés’ food truck. The mundane, usually the opposite of memorable, has never felt more comforting.

Which brings us back to the pumpkin spice latte. Starbucks was smart to declare that fall was coming early this year, releasing its PSL ahead of the usual autumnal schedule on August 25. I imagine that for a great many people, moments of solace will come from a $4 drink that tastes like Thanksgiving. Maybe it’ll put aside, for a second, the doubt that we will gather for one.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.

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